Monday, September 15, 2014

In Defense Of: Dexys Midnight Runners

This In Defense Of was contributed by Stephen Coleman, a physicist from Boulder, CO who wanders the streets naked underneath his overalls.

I’ve long had a soft spot in my heart for “Come On Eileen,” and it was for this reason that I wound up queuing Dexys Midnight Runners’ 1982 Too-Rye-Ay in Spotify during a late late night at work. “Eileen” is the only song most Americans know from Dexys Midnight Runners, who, like many popular UK bands, had their US invasion advances largely rebuffed. This is a strange band that deserves a listen, and is more than a footnote in the history of disposable 80’s pop.

Don’t get me wrong: I could write this entire article with nothing but single-entendres. Blurt out the name of their most famous song, without context, in front of a group of friends, and the majority are going to chuckle. But Dexys Midnight Runners are more important than that, and definitely shouldn’t be dismissed as just a one-hit wonder.

Oh, but what a hit they had. Fun fact: that song you just laughed at — “Come On Eileen” — had enough pop power to best the King of Pop himself, historically knocking “Billie Jean” off the top of the US charts in 1982. This fiddle-filled folksy sing-along was the antithesis of pop music at the time, and must have seemed like a breath of fresh air (I can’t speak from personal experience — I was just a fetus). It was sentimental and sincere, and in 1982 at least sentimentality hadn’t yet been destroyed by the The Bodyguard soundtrack. It didn’t last long at the top, as Michael Jackson regained his crown one week later with “Beat It”; however, it would be the crowning achievement of any band to go toe-to-toe with nearly any song off of Thriller, let alone to win.

Now, I can’t defend the band’s entire catalog. This being the Internet, someone’s bound to pop up and say “Ah-ha! Your best efforts aside, Dexys’ 2012 reunion effort One Day I’m Going to Soar really blows goats. I have proof.” And that person would be right. Right on, bro, and hey—nice Wayne’s World reference. Truly, women do not appreciate you for the prize that you are. But the band’s latter-day adult contemporary jazz (ugh) advances aside, there are some real gems contained in the band’s first two albums.

The band may have been short on hits stateside, but it was not short on ambition. Their first album, 1980’s Searching For the Young Soul Rebels, is littered with references both literary and musical. Singer Kevin Rowland’s lyrics consistently set up these legends, then tries to knock them down. In “Burn it Down,” the first song off of that debut record, Rowland goes after the likes of Elvis Costello, The Clash, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Samuel Beckett. In his first song. On his debut record. It’s no secret that he’s punching above his own weight, but he seems to be rejecting the notion that you need full knowledge of those that came before you in order to make any progress. It’s a stereotype that, to be a great writer, first you must read the classics. And the problem with “the classics” is that the list is infinite, and always growing. To paraphrase Newton (which is exactly the kind of thing that I suspect Rowland would reject), he’s saying that no, you don’t have to stand on the shoulders of giants in order to see farther. He hears someone bring up the greats and responds, “This man is looking for someone to hold him down."

For a band that claims to ignore their forebearers, they sure do reference individual artists an awful lot. The hit single from their first album was a catchy reggae-tinged R&B track “Geno,” dedicated to soul singer Geno Washington of Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band. The song was a hit in the UK but failed to chart in the US. The final track takes the form of a letter, almost a manifesto, name-dropping, among others, Kerouac, Kirkegaard, Burroughs, Duchamp, and Sinatra. Again, they reject the old guard as insincere. They’re looking for the new soul rebels and, not finding anyone worthy, they pick up the mantle themselves.

The rest of the album takes the same sounds through several different styles, from “Geno” to brassy minor-key instrumentals to maudlin Morrissey ballads, to Chubby Checker speak-singing, to spoken word poetry. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. But while the styles change, the tone is consistently sincere throughout. There is one exception — the falsetto and Queen-esque “Thankfully Not Living In Yorkshire It Doesn’t Apply” has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, but the joke is so deeply British that even this Anglophile doesn’t get it. It’s one turn of Cockney-slang phrase away from a Guy Ritchie movie.

A newcomer to this album will be surprised by just how brassy it is. It reminds me of Chicago Transit Authority-era Chicago (I hereby challenge Jon Mann to write “In Defense Of: Anything Chicago did after Chicago Transit Authority”).

[Editor’s note: Really? You don’t like “25 or 6 to 4”? That song comes in like a freight train, the lyrics and vocals are surprisingly ‘Sabbath, and the hornline is—you know what? Your article. We’ll discuss this later.] 

[Author’s note: OK, that’s probably my favorite Chicago song, and somehow I thought it was on CTA. We’re good here.] 

One song that I keep returning to is “Tell Me When My Light Turns Green.” Rowland’s fluttery, syncopated vocals and a great upbeat sax line sit right up front, joined by a driving snare in the chorus. It sounds very ELO. Huh: ELO + early Chicago = Dexys.

By the time the follow-up Too-Rye-Ay came out in 1982, they were named “Kevin Rowland and Dexys Midnight Runners,” foreshadowing the band’s breakup and Rowland’s attempt at a solo career. This album‘s first track, “Celtic Soul Brothers,” bridges the gap between their previous album and Too-Rye-Ay’s stylistic change. The horns are still there, but fiddles, mandolins, and banjos contribute to a folksier sound. The sincerity is still there, but it’s more immediate. “Let’s Make This Precious” reads like a prayer for the perfect record — “First let's hear somebody sing me a record that cries pure and true...the kind that convinces, refuses to leave.” The stylistic exploration continues on this album, carrying the folk instruments along. “Jackie Wilson Said” sounds like a crazy collaboration between Thin Lizzy and Van Morrison covering Motown. “Show Me” sounds like Freddie Mercury covering the Blues Brothers. “Until I Believe In My Soul” sounds like The Cure covering Prince, with some Weather Channel jazz thrown in the bridge. This shit is bananas.

As for “Eileen,” I can’t quite identify what draws me to the song. Rowland’s accent makes the song sound foreign and exotic. Seeing the music video in my youth no doubt colors my opinion of the song. Where in the world do people run around in overalls all the time? Is this a choice that’s a callback to earlier times, or are there places in the world that dress this way still? I’m sure that my first exposure to the song was one of my first experiences with folk-like music, right in the heyday of over-produced pop (see: In Defense Of: "It's All Coming Back To Me Now"). That made it sound subversive.

This stylistic departure has the air of a mysterious political statement, but the lyrics don’t really follow. The body of the song is a fairly standard adolescent sex fantasy, with the narrator conflicted over his feelings toward a childhood friend’s emerging womanhood and the celibate warnings of adults (“You in that dress, my thoughts—I confess—verge on dirty”). Lyrically, it’s nothing groundbreaking, and not as apparently referential as their other songs. But listen carefully, and you’ll hear a non-sequitur in the first verse. Who the hell is “poor old Johnnie Ray”? What does he have to do with Eileen? Is he some martyred Irish political leader? No: he was an American crooner in the 50s famous for sad songs. So nevermind—as it turns out, the song was originally about musical influences and Rowland’s place among them. The original working chorus of the song was “James, Van, and me,” referring to James Brown, Van Morrison, and Kevin Rowland. Once the song became its own thing, and didn’t rely on these other touchstones, it shined. It’s interesting then, that this single referential verse about Johnnie Ray remained at the start of the song after the song’s subject changed. It’s like a transitional fossil linking the hyper-literate but immature Philosophy major and a successful songwriter.

It’s also an under-appreciated bar singalong. The bridge is a slow crescendo & accelerando, building up like the part of “Shout” that gets it played at wedding receptions. I once had a dream where they discovered a deleted scene of Top Gun where “Come on Eileen” is played in a bar instead of the Righteous Brothers. And then Goose lives. Is there anything this song can’t do?

There’s another feature that appeals to the OCD musician in me: I’m a stickler for sixteen-bar structures. It drives me nuts when commercials cut down songs everyone knows to fit in time or skip to a particular lyric. Some bands cut it early and make the 16th bar a 3/4 or a 2/4. Every time this song rides into the chorus there’s an extra 2/4 measure, making you wait that much longer for the resolution waiting at the end. It’s like they get off on being withholding. [Editor’s note: Right on, bro, and hey—nice Arrested Development reference.] I like to think of it as an early example of dropping the bass. Fifty years from now, some documentary on EDM will be listing Dexys as an early influence. Okay, maybe not, but wouldn’t that blow your mind?

I’m not sure this band really warrants a defense, given that, to the demographic reading this blog, Dexys are as relevant as the Alan Parsons Project. Maybe, though, if they experience a revival like Journey has in the past few years, I’ll be able to drop the “guilty” aspect of this guilty pleasure. I also think it’s an object lesson in the depth hidden below some of the one-hit-wonders we remember from our youth. We all hear songs when we are younger, before we can really form reasoned opinions, that stick with us. With my exploration of Dexys, I thought — what if some of it sticks with us because it’s actually really good?

— Stephen Coleman

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